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The stench of Islamophobia in the Labour Party is getting stronger

Whether through cack-handed mismanagement or calculated strategy, the opposition is sowing pain, alienation and mistrust among Muslim members and voters

Rachel Shabi
Friday 09 July 2021 11:41 BST
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (PA)

The smell of double standards within the Labour Party, in its approach to different elements of its voter base, is becoming overwhelming. Whether through cack-handed mismanagement or calculated strategy, the opposition is sowing pain, alienation and mistrust among Muslim members and voters alike, while also pursuing the sort of principles-free, divide-and-rule tactics that would make a colonial-era viceroy proud.

Such hurtful inconsistency was in evidence in the quiet reinstatement of writer and broadcaster Trevor Phillips after he was suspended from Labour over alleged Islamophobia last year. Among Phillips’s comments are that UK Muslims are a “nation within a nation” and that a Muslim family fostering a non-Muslim girl would be “akin to child abuse”.

We might argue for days over Labour’s byzantine disciplinary processes, or even its blanket policy of suspensions pending inquiry. Nonetheless, Phillips’s readmission without explanation – a decision apparently taken above the unit responsible for a still ongoing investigation – smacks of backroom decision-making of the sort Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour was routinely accused of in its handling of antisemitism. The EHRC’s report into Labour antisemitism, released last year, pointed out that instances of political interference, such as where Corbyn’s leaders office influenced decisions on complaints or suspensions, represented a breach of equalities law.

It comes on top of stomach-turning comments from official party sources during the recent Batley and Spen by-election campaign. A senior Labour official reportedly said the party was haemorrhaging Muslim votes because of “what Keir [Starmer] has been doing on antisemitism” – a clearly Islamophobic claim that manages also to suggest that British Muslims and Jews are oppositional groups (Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner condemned this statement and promised an investigation).

An ill-advised Labour campaign leaflet, featuring the British prime minister shaking hands with India’s rightwing Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi, belied crassly insulting assumptions about the intelligence of Muslim voters. And after Labour’s narrow win in the constituency, a campaign source told a Times reporter that the party had, “lost the conservative Muslim vote over gay rights and Palestine, and won back a lot of 2019 Tory voters”, and that the result showed Labour was “reconnecting with the wider electorate again”.

A progressive party engaging in such grotesque dog-whistling – presenting Muslims as backward and as outside the “wider” population – should feel ashamed even in the best of times. But we are not in the best of times. Labour took this approach in a constituency where their candidate’s sister, Jo Cox, was murdered in 2016 by a far-right extremist. Labour did this at a time when hate crimes and attacks against British Muslims have spiralled and Islamophobia has become an ugly feature of our society, with a third of the population thinking that Islam is a threat to the British way of life.

Our main opposition party did this while a nativist Conservative government is, for its own political gain, stoking prejudice-filled division, tied to hostility to multiculturalism and immigration. If the Labour leadership does not possess either the nerve or the nous to take on this toxic political culture, they might at the very least not actively engage in it.

Meanwhile, all this is made worse by the party creating the utterly counter-productive impression of singling out the fight against antisemitism as separate to and more important than the handling of other forms of racism. True, the former Labour leader failed to effectively tackle antisemitism and Starmer might understandably choose to make it his initial focus. It’s also true that each form of racism has its own specificities. But the current approach does not help any minority and certainly not British Jews: no racism could properly be dealt with in such a divisive, zero-sum manner. And you might reasonably expect a genuinely anti-racist party to use the solid recommendations from the EHRC’s Labour antisemitism report as guidance to tackle other prejudices in the party.

Speaking to Muslim organisers and members, the heartbreak is clear: the party they have tirelessly campaigned for is not addressing their concerns, not even when a report from the Labour Muslim Network last year showed that one in four Muslim members and supporters had directly experienced Islamophobia in the party, while one in three had directly witnessed it.

Several campaigners told me the feeling is of a leadership disinclined to pick up on the issue in the absence of sufficient consternation from the parliamentary party and in the press. The current lack of focus on this issue stands in painfully stark contrast to the reporting of the party’s mishandling of antisemitism during Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as leader.

Labour’s inability to understand or tackle Islamophobia, much like its tin-eared problems with antisemitism, is not a new development. But the damage caused by failing to address racism goes far beyond the communities involved – although clearly, that is bad enough. A progressive party that claims to uphold equality, inclusiveness and human rights for all cannot stand on ground so badly dented by such inconsistencies. And the unpalatable smell of such horrible mismanagement is repelling those who need the party, both as a political home and actually in government.

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